This article appeared in the April 1984 The Battalion Remembers booklet.
The Sheep Dog Remembers
WOOF WOOF. Has anyone recently been bitten by a mad dog? I had just returned from my daily constitutional of nine holes of golf and sitting down on my front porch with a glass of beer, and doing some Maori PT when the phone rang.
"Harry Lambert here, I am doing a magazine for the Auckland Reunion, and I want 1000 words of reminiscences." Some of you older Psalm Singers, Penny Divers, Cowboys, and Ngati Poneke will remember that you called me amongst your more complimentary terms, 'The Sheep Dog of the Maori Battalion', but this old soldier's memory has dimmed with the time lag. But here goes.
I joined the Battalion after Greece and Crete in Garawi when Ace Wood went to OCTU - CO George Dittmer, George Bertrand 2 IC, and Adjt Paul Te Punga - walked over to the Sergeants Mess before dinner for a beer to be met by amongst others, Wi Anaru, Don Haronga, George Harrison, Ivon Harris, Tai Yates, Julian Waretini, and Selon Wickliffe - asked for a beer - to be met by blank stares, and told that the mess was dry. After a tough confrontation with the CO, during which I intimated that if he did not have confidence in my ability to control a wet mess, I would request a transfer. After a quite heated discussion I got permission for a wet Sergeants Mess, and the members did not let me down.
The CO, 2 I/C, Adjt, and Don Haronga the Provost Sergeant were amongst the best disciplinarians I have met and backed by the Company Commanders, and NCO's contributed to the very high standard of discipline in the battalion. As a regular soldier I believe that bullying cowers the coward, and provokes the resistance of real men, but that firm and just discipline is necessary if a unit is to become a good fighting machine. It was this good discipline combined with the good morale, the hereditary mana, strong physical condition; and skills in the arts of personal combat of the Maori Race that made this Battalion such an excellent fighting force. I remember the CO saying to me before our first Desert Action, "You don't have to drive these chaps into action, the trouble is in stopping the buggars going too far". Do you remember Tony Rex of the Kiwi Concert Party singing, "Give me some men who are stout hearted men" - etc.
Now at Kabrit on the Great Bitter Lake with rumours of a landing behind the German Lines, for combined ops, and landing craft training with the LC Glengyle of Crete days. Peter Awatere, and Jack Epiha with the tug-of-war team defeating the opposition. The Navy Cutter Races, the Italian air bombing, and the leave trips to Suez. How many of George Katene's blokes remember firing the 3" Mortar from the LC during the landing exercise in the Arabian Desert. I was delegated safety officer to the mortars, and just as the bomb was sliding down the barrel a wave hit the LC increasing the angle of the mortar from approximately 45 degrees to approximately 90 degrees. The bomb went almost straight up, but luckily missed everybody.
Do any of you Sergeants remember putting my head on the chopping block when you furnished the Sergeants Mess with furniture from the fire in Shufti Shafto's Cinema? Prior to the Route march from Kabrit to Moascar the CO called me over and said, "I have a bet with Andrews of 22 Battalion that we will beat their time." I said, "Yes Sir 120 to the minute all the way". He replied, "120 be damned, you will set the pace at 130". Well we won the race, but I do not think we arrived fit to fight.
So to Alamein, and the Kaponga Box. Little did we realise when digging, wiring, and mining this fortress that it would save our bacon when we retired from Minqar Qaim. Great praise was heaped on the battalion for the way they worked on the box.
Everyone will remember the training in moving by transport in Desert formation. At night charging along with only the red taillight showing, almost hub to hub, and nose to tail, and spreading out before daylight to 100 yards between vehicles. What a wonderful job you drivers did! Do you recall learning to navigate by Sun Compass?
What a wonderful sight the Fifth Brigade made on our first move in Desert formation. Did you know that during the Bde Exercise Sidi Cliff and Bir Stella we walked through live minefields? I was plodding along heavy footed alongside the CO when he said, "Take it easy SM these are live mines". I remember being told that the wogs who made these mines used nails as sheer pins, and that these would bear the weight of a man but occasionally to sabotage them they used a match stick. Have you ever seen an RSM trying to walk on air?
The first Desert campaign, "CRUSADER", was a right hook over the Cyrenaica border between Fort Madelina and Sidi Omar, and as we were waiting to move we had a mighty thunderstorm with bolts of lightning. The CO said to me, "A good omen, the Gods of War are on our side". Through Fort Capuzzo, and our first desert attack on Sollum, which was successful, but a shell on battalion HQ wounded George Dittmer who was evacuated, and sent home to New Zealand. Tiwi Love becomes the first Maori CO of the battalion.
B Ech at Capuzzo, and B Coy at Musaid heavily attacked when Rommell breaks out of Halfaya Pass, Bn heavily shelled at Sollum, and 5th Bde HQ overrun at Sidi Azeiz. What a pandemonium! We hear that Japan has attacked Pearl Harbour and America has entered the war.
We move to Menastir to cut the road to Bardia, where we are attacked by German column. During the successful defence Jack - B Coy jumps on the parapet and does a Haka. While moving back to Capuzzo, we have so much captured German transport in our column that we are shelled by an Indian Arty Unit.
A daylight attack in conjunction with the Poles on an Italian fortification at Gazala looked tough until we got in close when suddenly the Italian position looked like a Wog village on washing day. Hundreds of prisoners taken, many with their haversacks already packed. The Duke of Wellington said that a British soldier carried a Field Marshal's baton in his knapsack. Looked like an Italian soldier carried a white flag.
I shall never forget the hollow square church parades held in the desert after we had pulled out of an action. The harmonious, heart felt singing of the hymns made even the non-believer, and slit trench philosopher an ardent worshipper.
Remember Xmas Dinner at El Adem. Italian canned horse meat, and dehydrated vegetables. What were you doing on New Year's Eve at Baggush Box? German flares Italian grenades, and other captured enemy ammunition made a NZ Guy Fawkes pale by comparison.
So to Syria, the Bekka Valley, Arsal in the Anti-Lebanons, and the snow. What a nerve wracking drive from Palestine to Damascus with those Arab buses and drivers. The digging of positions, PI hikes into the hills the puha picked in Palestine and Syria, with pork hangi's, greatly rejuvenated the battalion, but a great loss was loommg.
The battalion had increased its mobility and firepower by retaining captured weapons, transport and ammunition. I was about to proceed to Baelbeck when Lt-Col Humphrey Dyer called me into his office and said, "I have been ordered to return all captured weapons etc. The Coy OC's and I agree we should retain them". What do you think? I said "Sir, General Sherman said that the force that gets there fastest with the most firepower will win the battle and if we are to fight in silly brigade groups in the desert, we need all the transport, and the firepower we can get." The Col refused to return the weapons etc, and the result was gallant Officer had sacrificed his career for, as he saw it, the welfare of his troops.
How did you enjoy your beach holiday in Beirut before the move back into the desert? A posting out of the battalion, a training job in Maadi camp and eventually a return to New Zealand.
In the meantime Singapore had fallen, and Australian Division had gone home, and the bets were that we were on our way too, but it was not to be, and the battalion was to fight on to honours, glory, a VC, and many successful battles on the long chase to Tripoli and Trieste.
Best wishes to all of you who served in the 28th (Maori) Battalion.
KIA KAHA - KA WHAIWHAI TONU AKEAKE
REKE Rex Musgrave R.S.M.